Ready to cook this winter? Indulge in an international spice tour of Kansas City
Explore the unique tastes and aromas of our multicultural region with a tour of Kansas City's quintessential spice markets.
This story was first published in KCUR's Creative Adventure newsletter. You can sign up to receive stories like this in your inbox every Tuesday.
As the temperature descends and our sunlit hours decrease, there's a wealth of traditional foods that keep us cozy and generate warm memories year after year.
Spices are an integral part of the season, where flavor is a higher priority than presentation as regions in the northern hemisphere traditionally celebrate the harvest.
From anise to za’atar, indulge in a spice tour of Kansas City, exploring the unique tastes and aromas of our multicultural region.
A sense of heritage
Walk into any spice shop and inhale. Chances are, you’ll experience a kaleidoscope of recognizable scents and indescribable aromas in a heady rush.
Food, and especially flavoring, tells a story. Our olfactory sensory organ links directly to the amygdala and hippocampus, with certain smells generating strong emotions and triggering vivid memories. A sniff of clove, a whiff of sumac, a hint of fennel: each brings to the fore a different sensation for every individual.
This winter, dig out some heirloom recipes and try to recreate what your grandparents may have enjoyed as children, sharing across generations and creating new memories.
Speaking of generations: it's a great time to visit two of the region’s beloved older businesses. Planters Seeds & Spices has served the River Market since 1924, with bulk spices, teas, coffees, gardening supplies, birdhouses and hardware. It operates out of a building that dates back to 1880.
Since 1968, Pryde’s Kitchen & Necessities has operated from its Old Westport location. The building was built in 1922 and the interior is crammed with every imaginable kitchen implement. Among their many products are spice mixes from Olde Westport Spice & Trading Company, a 40-year old company founded in Overland Park, Kansas. Purchases are lovingly gift wrapped and there’s a pie shop on the ground floor.
Exploration of the senses
Spices not only smell good and make food delicious, but they also demonstrate the creativity of our ancestors. Let the exploration of spices take you on a tour through history and around the world. While measuring out a pinch of this or a tablespoon of that, investigate where the spice was grown, where it originated and what part of the plant is used. Make it a game at the kids’ table as they wait for a Thanksgiving feast, smelling or tasting the individual spices used in a recipe.
Many different cultures observe holidays this time of year, with celebrations of Thanksgiving, Chanukkah, St. Nicholas Day, Las Posadas, Christmas Eve and Christmas, Yule, St. Lucia Day, Pancha Ganapati, Kwanzaa, Epiphany, New Year’s Day and more.
Do your traditional meals include cinnamon and nutmeg? Or maybe cardamom and chilis? Does preparation differ historically or geographically? Make the season a movable feast with friends and neighbors and organize a dish exchange for sharing your family favorites.
Stock up on your bulk spices and ignite your culinary imagination with a visit to the City Market, where you'll find two bulk spice purveyors. Al-Habashi Mart (next to Habashi House) sells a variety of bulk spices and other Middle Eastern staples, including trays of baklava and halal gummi worms. Tikka House has bulk spice and specialty mixes, as well as a menu of favorite Indian dishes.
If you're looking to explore new flavors, but not sure where to start, visit any of the specialty markets throughout the region, from small mom and pop stores to immense retail emporiums. A few places to start are Swagat Spice Bazaar, in Zona Rosa, and Ambica Foods or 888 Int’l Market, in Overland Park.
Not only is Kansas City one of the world’s best destinations for barbecue, but our local companies make a range of specialty sauces and rubs to appeal to just about any palate.
Spicin Foods on Southwest Boulevard makes a lot of sauce. On their roster is one of the world’s most notorious hot sauces, Da' Bomb, made infamous by the YouTube sensation “Hot Ones.” During each episode, host Sean Evans and a celebrity guest eat increasingly hotter sauce on chicken wings (or fried tofu or cauliflower) as the show progresses. Included on every lineup is Da’ Bomb sauce, and it makes just about anyone with taste buds, even Kansas City Chiefs’ tight end Travis Kelce, lose their cool.
In perhaps the most charming episode of all time, Kansas City’s own Paul Rudd (newly appointed “Sexiest Man Alive” by People Magazine) experiences the jolt of endorphins generated by Da’ Bomb’s 135,600 Scoville Heat Units (for comparison, your average jalapeño doesn’t rate higher than 8,000 SHU).
Along with manufacturing and distributing sauces, Spicin Foods has a tasting bar and gift shop, as well as a small museum (a hallway with memorabilia). It's open Fridays and Saturdays, 10 a.m.-3 p.m., with curbside pickup available during business hours.
From its Overland Park research facility, Old World Spices & Seasonings, Inc. develops custom spice mixes. The company sells a variety of rubs and sauces that Kansas Citians love in their BBQ Spot online store, including Arthur Bryant’s and Kansas City’s Cowtown.
Gratitude and giving
If you’re not an at-home chef — or even a kitchen dabbler — you can find lovingly-made gifts for any occasion. And, if you're lucky, you may even reap the culinary benefit of your thoughtful gesture.
Frankincense, myrrh — good smelling things could be considered to be the most traditional gift. Plenty of places offer gift sets or the materials to create your own, from both local shops and national chains, including Savory Spice in Brookside or Penzeys in Overland Park. You could even try your hand at mixing up your own unique spice rub, dressed up with a handmade label.
A hot drink goes a long way towards staying warm on a bitter cold night. Create spice packets for delicious beverages, including spicy hot chocolate, wassel, pumpkin spice lattes, mulled wines, fortified ciders, healing tonics and soothing teas.
You can also feel good knowing that purchasing bulk spices, and reusing or recycling your containers, helps protect the planet. Pantry Goods is a plastic-free pantry and local farmers' market on 39th Street by Q39, with a selection of bulk foods and reduced-waste household products.
And, though KCUR is an independent affiliate of UMKC, the university encourages staff to lend support to Harvesters Community Food Network, a regional food bank, which contributes food and related household supplies to 760 non-profit organizations around the area.
Want more adventures like this? Sign up for KCUR's Creative Adventure Email.